After eight years as county executive, Steven C. Bellone is still dreaming big. He has far-reaching plans for Suffolk, some that cannot come to fruition until well after he has left office even if all goes well, and he understands the obstacles.
But the good news for those who focus on the present is that Bellone has been doing that, too. Largely, that means he has been working on the county's budget woes. Suffolk was in dire straits, with a big deficit and serious cash flow problems, when he first won election in 2011, and its position has improved. After a series of money-saving measures during his first term, Bellone has neither used one-shots nor amortized county pension payments for two years running. He has stopped raiding a fund meant to stabilize taxes in county-run sewer districts, and he has pushed the concept of sharing services with other municipalities. He also has benefited from a rosier sales tax picture, though a recession could puncture that growth. The bottom line: His $3.2 billion budget proposal for 2020 is largely balanced.
Suffolk was identified recently by the state comptroller's office as experiencing more fiscal stress than any county in New York in 2018, but the office noted that Suffolk's score, flat from the year before, shows its finances are stabilizing. Bellone, a North Babylon Democrat, says the year-old figures examined by state auditors don't capture the county's current improving condition.
That's not to say all financial issues are resolved. Bellone, 50, should be more transparent about who the winners and losers are in his budget proposals. While his 2020 plan comes in under the state 2% state tax cap, taxes will increase by a larger amount for residents outside the Southwest Sewer District because Bellone is returning reserve funds to sewer district residents, offsetting increases in police district taxes for them but not for residents elsewhere. And while labor contracts are still an outsized part of the budget, Bellone deserves credit for getting unions to agree to contribute to health care in pacts completed earlier this year, a concession that is expected to save taxpayers $30 million to $40 million a year, depending on who does the analysis. Also helpful: Republicans have not let Democrats win a supermajority in the legislature, so they still can block unnecessary bonding.
None of that means that Bellone's principal opponent, county Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., is wrong to make finances the centerpiece of his campaign. But Kennedy already is in the best position he could fill to serve Suffolk taxpayers. By nature a watchdog, he's done a good job ferreting out waste, corruption and inefficiency in county contracts. Audits of homeless shelter providers, youth groups, cultural associations and, most prominently, the concessionaire Beach Hut, have led to the recovery of millions of dollars. He has been a strong voice on the unaffordability of labor contracts, and wants to pare down allowed accumulations of unused sick days and curb big retirement payouts, causes Bellone would be wise to adopt.
But Kennedy, 63, a Republican from Nesconset, concedes he has some ownership of the county's fiscal problems as the legislature's former minority leader. He has opposed virtually every Bellone cost-saving proposal, including a plan to consolidate the comptroller and treasurer offices before Kennedy was elected comptroller. But he shepherded that transition and now touts other streamlining consolidations, like moving the parks department into the Department of Public Works.
Kennedy too often engages in petty politics to score points, as he did when he sent federal 1099 tax forms to both homeowners and installers of new septic systems under a county grant program Kennedy opposes. Rather than seek an IRS opinion first, he created unnecessary confusion about who should pay taxes on the county grants for those systems.
But Kennedy is correct that Bellone should turn over documents related to the selection of a developer of a $1.1 billion sports arena and convention center at the Ronkonkoma Hub, as a judge has ordered. It's part of Bellone's maddening failure to respect process, even when his vision of the future is spot on. Remember, this project is possible only because Bellone pulled out of a previously negotiated contract to put solar panels in a parking lot south of the Ronkonkoma train station. Bellone was correct that the panels were ill-advised because they would stymie any development there, but he was wrong not to negotiate an escape from the contract. The legal judgment for breaching it cost Suffolk $10.8 million. Should Bellone win a third term, he must surround himself with top-notch legal talent. That help will be especially needed to guide the county through upcoming wrongful-conviction court cases like the one that put Keith Bush in prison for 33 years, cases that could result in judgments totaling tens of millions of dollars.
But Bellone's shortcomings are eclipsed by his obvious strengths, most notably his vision for Suffolk's potential and what it will take to get there.
He's right about wanting to make Suffolk a desirable place to live, evoking its natural beauty and proximity to New York City to attract young, highly skilled workers, and the businesses that would follow them. He's right about building a network of vibrant downtowns, what he calls innovation centers where people can live and work, and link them up with public transportation. He's right to propose moving the Yaphank train station to Brookhaven National Lab, and about installing sewers in Kings Park and St. James to revitalize those areas.
And he has been right for years that water quality is a crisis. Early on, he was the lone elected official sounding the alarm. Now, more than $380 million worth of large sewer projects are coming over the next few years, and the county is revving up the rollout of its septic-system replacement program. Next up is the search for a recurring funding stream and the ongoing development of new technologies to treat wastewater.
Suffolk County is best served by Bellone leading that charge, with Kennedy watching over his shoulder.
Newsday endorses Bellone.